Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)


Alfred Abel (Jon Fredersen), Gustav Fröhlich (Freder), Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang), Fritz Rasp (The Thin Man), Theodor Loos (Josaphat), Erin Biswanger (11811), Heinrich George (Grot), Brigitte Helm (Maria / The Robot). Directed by Fritz Lang, Screenplay by Thea Von Harbou. Rating: PG. Running time: 118 minutes.

First things first: this film was not made in 1927. I’m sorry, I don’t care what anybody tells me, whatever evidence they have. I’ve seen films from this time period, I’ve seen films made more than thirty years after this one was allegedly recorded, and I know that the special effects and clarity of the visuals could never be as good as they are in Metropolis. It would be decades ahead of its time. Either this film is a miracle, or I’ve just uncovered a great cinematic conspiracy.

Obviously it’s the former, but it’s hard to explain just how difficult it is to stomach the fact that Metropolis is over 80 years old. Forget James Cameron and his creation of the world of Avatar, forget Spielberg’s futuristic Minority Report, in fact, forget any modern day sci-fi fantasy film. Just imagine what it would have been like if Fritz Lang had gotten his hands on the technology of today. It’s inconceivable. In Metropolis, he creates a bustling supercity, packed with elevated sky-motorways and sky-scrapers, including a new Tower of Babel (the significance of which I’ve previously explained here). It’s a world monopolised by one autocratic leader, Metropolis‘ builder and boss Jon Fredersen. He lives the life of luxury, along with a handful of others that we can fairly name the bourgeois. They party hard and enjoy the pleasures of life from above, and their existence is built on the foundations of the masses working in hellish conditions down below.

The stage is set so clearly for a Marxist class struggle, no more so than when we observe the peasantry rebelliously gathering to hear the words of their revered pacifist leader, the charismatic Maria. Lang hasn’t finished here though. Not only is he breaking ground with these revolutionary sci-fi visuals and a grandiose socio-political plot, but he goes and injects Metropolis with a dash of Nietzsche as well. His influence is twofold: first on the necessity of chaos and love in life, and not just strict logic and efficiency of action; secondly on the striving for an Übermensch to replace man in greatness. So Metropolis naturally has a romantic middle man, in the form of Fredersen’s son. Maria had predicted a mediating ‘heart’ to come and bridge the gap between the mind (the bourgeois) and the hands (the workers), and he realises he was destined to do this when he falls in love with Maria. Meanwhile, though, there’s a whacky scientist who has sacrificed his hand as he’s strived to produce the world’s first superhuman. He’s trying to recreate his lost love, who had left him for Fredersen and died giving birth to Fredersen’s son. He thus has every reason to work against Metropolis’ boss, and when he is asked to make his robot in the image of Maria, he indeed does so, but to help spur on a destructive revolution, not to sow distrust between her and the workers as Fredersen had demanded.

This is an absurdly good story, and the events that follow serve to show off the groundbreaking sets even further. There are floods, there are explosions, and it’s all quite surreal when you remember the first computer was about half a century away. Not only this though, but Lang seemed determined to inject his masterpiece with an element of every classical German thinker that had come to the fore in the century preceding him: add Freud to the Marxist and Nietzschean elements, at a time when the use of the infamous psychologist wouldn’t have been obtusely cliché. There’s a horrific scene when the bourgeois men are set into fits of sexual rage through their desire of the superhuman version of Maria who erotically dances for them, and she thus progresses from Madonna to whore as the plot maps out.

Metropolis is absolutely massive in its vision and achievement. Already I’m starting to realise what an influence it inevitably had on every filmmaker to come: I can’t think of Godard’s Alphaville now without mentally renaming it Metropolis 2. It excels in every possible way, and never will I underestimate the power of silent black-and-whites from a century ago again.

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